Edit & Opinion

$7 Billion Election | Money Does Talk

Elections are becoming trickier, opaque and a game of money power. Rigging polls is no more a hush-hush matter. In the run up to the 17th parliamentary election, muscle power and not so confidence-building EVMs are overtaking voters. The cost is increasing manifold and some estimates suggest that Indian elections are as expensive as those of the US presidency.

It is known, no electronic device is foolproof. The introduction of VVPAT print trail has been a welcome move, but the Election Commission’s reluctance to count all printed slips foxes the voter. Its reasoning that it takes longer time in declaring results is a flimsy argument but somewhere, though clumsily, it wants to say it would be an additional expense.

Nirvachan Sadan forgets that an election, which used to be over and done with, in about a month has now been extended to three months. Is there any rationale? It appears that earlier the Commission was more efficient and did a mammoth job in a shorter period even with ballot papers. Can it therefore take the trouble to explain why it held polling in two constituencies 15 days apart in the tiny State of Tripura?

A matching count of VVPAT slips it is estimated would not add more than a day and therefore the EC’s reluctance is not easy to comprehend. It must not forget that VVPAT slips are necessary for sheer credibility of poll process, else it all adds up to nagging suspicion.

Poll expenses in 2014 were Rs 3870 crore, as per the Election Commission data. In 2019, it is anticipated the exercise may cost at least 50 per cent more. But let us not forget that the first election, through ballot papers, in 1952 cost Rs 10.5 crore.

However, these expenses are only of the Central government and do not include cost of State law and order machinery among others, work loss in offices, banks and schools, etc. Thus, actual expenses are rising and so is the blatant, scientific, artistic rigging and buying of votes. It is not surprising when Open Secrets.org, which tracks money trail in US politics, says about $6.5 billion was spent in US presidential race.

There are myriad expenses. Earlier it used to be just advertisements and some event managements. Now it has expanded to media management, social media, paid and fabricated news, continuous bombarding on the voter with news or non-news or mud-slinging or unreal videos, et al. These are not easy to calculate. In the Indian context, New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimated the total expenses in 2019 would be around Rs 50,000 crore or $7 billion, which is 2 billion more than in 2014, stated to be $5 billion.

Even modest calculations would put another approximate Rs 3000 to 5,000 crore increase in EC’s official spending. Besides, it’s no secret that cash, even up to Rs 5000 a vote, was doled out by some candidates in the 2018 Assembly elections. Add to this other costs involved in use of choppers, special flights, buses and other transportation modes by political parties and their candidates.

While the election process in West Bengal and Tripura have hit headlines due to blatant violations, it would be similar in many other States, but with more finesse. These polls also confirm that Modi’s note-ban has had little impact on entire process and it remains as tricky as it was during the days of “vote chhapa” in Bihar or Haryana. Even the first election was not free of it. There are narrations how musclemen were engaged by influential people, then zamindars and petty royalties, who were afraid of losing their clout in 1952.

This culture exists today too. There are brazen claims by some party workers of pressing the EVM button 150 times each in different booths. The truth is not easy to verify but the claim itself is not unbelievable. Apparently political parties seem to master it well if we look at West Bengal, Kerala or hinterlands of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh or the North-East. These have monetary cost too.

Particularly in West Bengal it is an art practiced since the days of Left Front regime. Then it was called scientific rigging and soft to harsh methods were utilised. Now days State party cadres are more subtle—they visit individual homes across the State, including Kolkata, greet voters, have tea with them and ‘politely’ leave saying, “Dada for five years we have taken care of you. Please do not go to the polling booth”.

Other times, it is not always that polite. In villages particularly, party cadres visit homes and put indelible ink on the voters’ finger, saying “Your vote is cast. Don’t take the trouble any more to go the polling booth”. Other subterfuges include driving the voters on polling day to a picnic spot instead.

The violence as witnessed in Bankura, Ghaatal and Midnapore is the result of rivalry between cadres for dominating an area. The winner controls local businesses, real estate, security agencies and tolabazi – extortion and contributes to the party fund. And this is vital for a post-election scenario.

Recall, West Bengal perfected the art in 2018 panchayat polls. Not only did these elections cost 112 lives but one-third of the panchayat seats were won by TMC candidates uncontested. The rivals were simply forced to withdraw nomination by sheer force or threats. Further, the modus operandi goes beyond polling day. Transportation and storage of EVMs as always with ballot boxes has been tricky and suspect. Then there is the problem of secrecy and credibility of electronic voting. Fiddling with an electronic device, without even physically touching it, is possible.

There is no denying that elections are becoming far more expensive as political parties are receiving funds through election bonds, and yet declared contributions have seen a reduction, increasing the anonymity. The Association for Democratic Rights has thus argued in the Supreme Court against such funding, alleging black money donations through shell companies.

In a statement in the Lok Sabha, the government said that in 2017-2018, 520 electoral bonds worth Rs 222 crore were issued, of which 511 worth Rs 221 crore were redeemed. Of these, the BJP received Rs 210 crore, the Congress Rs 5 crore and other parties Rs 6 crore. Obviously, this suggests that smaller parties such as TMC, BSP, SP, BJD, TDP, TRS, AIADMK, DMK or even those in J&K, Kerala and elsewhere are not cash-strapped.

Whoever may be winner of 2019 elections, the sanctity of the process has been undermined. Post-poll, the Election Commission, political parties and civil society organisations need to ponder whether India’s democracy was held hostage by those who vow to cherish it? —INFA

 

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